3 HR Tips to Turn NFP Passion into Performance

Passion is a wonderful trait and a powerful differentiator of nonprofit employees and for-purpose organisations. It can even be a mandatory job requirement. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that passion is not enough. Nonprofit organisations can incorrectly confuse passion with competent performance in the people they employ. No amount of passion can compensate for missing attributes such as innovation, adaptability, accountability, engagement, transparency, teamwork or professionalism.

Passionate employees who have not been measured against benchmarks can get defensive when they are provided with performance-based feedback. They can feel they have invested so much of themselves in terms of time, energy and dedication into the cause, that they take a lack of results as a personal criticism. They can think their passion is enough and should be accepted unquestioningly. They can find professional performance evaluation confronting.

The harsh reality is that even the greatest passion cannot excuse an absence of measurable outcomes on behalf of those the organisation serves. For passion to be effective, it must be channelled into performance.

Nonprofit leaders need to build trust and resilience so employees can hear performance-based feedback as guidance and support, rather than as criticism or a rejection of their self-worth. Effective coaching, training and mentoring can help employees improve their output to effort ratio – to achieve more for the same effort. In doing so, they gain the personal fulfilment that comes from seeing positive change unfold.

Leaders can help employees do their jobs more effectively by addressing three longstanding nonprofit HR practices that have become performance roadblocks.

1) Over-consultation into Action

Consulting widely with staff is a keystone of nonprofit organisations, but what constitutes too much consultation? Employees need to feel heard and acknowledged, and to provide input. But at some point, someone needs to make a decision. Nonprofits can cross this line by trying to please everyone – and it is invariably impossible to get everyone to agree to anything.

The aim of consultation is not to make everyone happy, but to solicit appropriate feedback and then transparently explain the reasons why and how the final decision was made. It is more important for employees to respect the decision making process than to ‘like’ any individual decision. The process, deadlines and planned extent of consultation must be crystal clear from the outset.

Over consultation can breed frustration and disengagement – the very opposite of what it was intended to do. It can get in the way of employees actually doing their jobs. The implicit message that employees receive from over consultation is that it is acceptable for things to go round in circles ad infinitum, and that inefficiency is tolerated. Duplication of effort is the enemy of outcomes. Doing things once and doing them properly is the essence of efficiency.

When employees enter into long ‘consultations’, but the final plan does not include any reference to their feedback, it looks like a dictatorial process disguised as democracy. If you ever want to disengage your workforce, this is how to do it because it fosters resentment through an obvious question: “Why did you ask me if you weren’t going to listen?”

The consultation process sets the tone of accountability. It too, needs to be accountable. I’m not a fan of acronyms but one that I do like is DIFOT – delivered in full, on time. Most often used as a performance delivery metric within supply chains, the words also express an ethos of accountability and responsibility towards others. DIFOT underpins what good consultation should be – a clearly managed and transparent process.

2) Amiability into Authenticity

Everyone loves a positive, friendly and harmonious working environment. Nonprofits often have high levels of amiability – people want to be nice. However, there are dangers in being too amiable.

Amiability becomes a roadblock when employees avoid doing things that might be unpopular. Being too nice can stifle productivity. When the need to be liked develops into a fear of upsetting sensitivities, or worse being the kind of person who always says what others want to hear but doesn’t actually do anything about it.

Amiability can disguise a lack of forthrightness. The employee who sends reassuring messages like “I’m working hard on this” to express amiable agreement can often fail to deliver on the task itself. Or the manager who tells each employee a different story, to keep them on side. Amiability can also be a coping mechanism to handle fear of rejection or retribution – whether real or perceived.

It is the CEO and the leadership team’s role to define a culture of authenticity where employees feel safe to raise issues for debate, and to be able to say ‘no’ openly.  The opposite of over amiability is not rudeness. It is the courage to be authentic.

3) Gossip into Healthy Debate

Gossip is a major cause of lost productivity that flourishes when there is fear or frustration. Fear can be created by a top down, punitive control and command ethos. Frustration can be created by over consultation, inefficient systems and a lack of accountability or transparency.

The CEO needs to lead by example. Once the leadership team presents a united front, they can begin to address the behaviour of specific gossip perpetrators to ensure bad behaviour is not rewarded. Or, where there are issues that warrant employee frustration or fear, to tackle them and create an environment where talk is channelled into productive, healthy debate.

Communicating transparently so all staff feel they know what is happening will help reduce any gaps in the management dialogue – because gaps feed the uncertainty that negative gossip fills. Encouraging positive gossip by actively listening to ideas from within (and taking action based on them) encourages employees to realise their voices are important.

Nonprofits concerned with upsetting sensitivities can find it hard to bring critical issues out into the open, where they can be dealt with. Paradoxically, this can have the opposite result and foster gossip which has a far more detrimental effect. Employees who rely on gossip can perpetuate an insular culture that makes open collaboration impossible. This is especially true of those who haven’t worked in environments that encourage open, healthy debate – they can find the process intimidating and incorrectly diagnose healthy debate as hostile because it is so overt.

Turning over-consultation into action, amiability into authenticity, and gossip into healthy debate are three of the most powerful things nonprofits can do to turn passion into performance.

This article is an excerpt from The Future of Associations and ran in the Third Sector newsletter in September 2017.

Omer Soker is the author of The Future of Associations and The Trust Future.